night plankton

March 31st, 2018 § 2 comments § permalink

Some play video from a bucket of night plankton in the Golfo de San Blas:

up and over

March 29th, 2018 § 5 comments § permalink

There is traveling and then there is pilgrimage. I just wanted to write something down in this moment before the whole feeling escapes me. It is a combination of physical exertion, mental openness, and receiving coincidence after coincidence.

The night before last, my husband and I were sitting on the edge of a termite-infested bench in the tropical highlands at the frontier between the comarca Guna Yala and the valley of Mamoní. Surrounded by our wet socks, bandanas, and muddy boots, the sounds of howler monkeys and every type of frog, bird and insect singing, we spoke to each other quietly, and had the type of conversation that you have when the everyday scales of resentment, irritation, bookkeeping etc. have fallen away. To get into that mindset, we went on and up-and-over pilgrimage.


Our new machete.

Since we have been anchored near the mouth of Rio Mandinga, we have started making trips up on tierra firme, knowing the pueblos there and slowly building relationships as we went. It is an area that has a past of thwarted exploitation by extranjeros, first by the early banana industry, a company that preceded the now-global giant Dole. Then came the tourism-minded gringos of the mid 20th century: the good, the bad and the downright ugly. Today, in this region there are no more bananeros, and no more foreign-built hotels. The two local airstrips no longer have set service, a sharp contrast to past times when there were regular commercial flights to Porvenir and US Army use at Mandinga. Its an area subject to countless schemes and incursions, which have been held at bay by the iterative and adaptable Guna congreso.


Congreso house for the Mandi Yala pueblo.

Way back when, this route was considered the first choice for what would ultimately become the Panama Canal, but the Gunas, back when they were Cunas, had scuttled that plan post haste.So when we went out by foot, up the river and over the continental divide and down the “other side”, we did so step-by-step, requesting permiso for every leg of the journey. The trail became not just a series of steps, but a continuum of relationships.


Coconut water to-go.


Critters and communities along the path.

In my mind I was having a running conversation with my family and friends, which happens out on the boat as well. I even sent a mental thank you note to my high school cross country coach, for instilling in us the mantra of mental toughness. He smoked his pipe as we ran through the woods, shouting after us, “running is 99% mental toughness!”


Leaf litter.

Today I have work projects that need my full attention, I have laundry to fold, and all these workaday things – like applying aspercreme to my tender knees – have a a renewed purpose and shine. Maybe its just endorphins, but it feels like everything fits.

Tonight I meet up with my “first friend” in Panama, Mara – the one who taught me how to make ceviche on a sailboat. We are going to take her mom out for the start of Holy Week processions. This morning she told me she was surprised I was interested in going, because “gringas are usually Lutheran, no?”. Denominations aside, I am just glad to be in the fold, and to keep moving forward.


One of many rivers and creeks to cross.


March 25th, 2018 § 5 comments § permalink

When we first arrived in the Robeson group of islands, we soon were visited by curious kids out on their canoes, messing around on the final days of their summer. Kids as young as 5 or 6, out in a tippy dugout with an even younger sibling operating the bailer, would cruise by, hollering a few words of Spanish and laughing at everything weird about us and our boat. My call out ,“Chao, bacalao!” still gets a big laugh, and I am suspecting that some day I will learn its some naughty phrase in the Guna language.

Ultimately, the bravest of the girls asked/declared, “SUBIR.” And after a smile from me, subir she did, clamoring up from her ulu and pulling up kid after kid after her, finishing with young Mirian, a toddler no more than 2. After those first pioneers, we had Guna kids tumbling around our boat every afternoon, like clockwork.

Fabio ran a fishing clinic, where we provided hand lines and a bucket and just watched the older boys jig fish after fish after fish. Down below, I deployed a bag of colored pencils and markers, and subdivided notebook paper into mini canvases. As the sun set, we would hang up the drawings on the lifelines, divvy up the fish, and enjoy our magic hour speaking gobbledygook with other people’s babies.

At first, we were wondering, is this ok? Gringo-Guna relations have a long and checkered past, resulting in the conservative approach practiced today by all. Yet here we were running an unlicensed summer camp for half the island. We knew that the whole operation was being lightly monitored via tiny whoops and whistles sent back and forth with home. So we rowed close to shore and waved and greeted and smiled. We figured out who went with who, and met the parents. And so for about a month, that was our job.

But our daycare was not built to last. One evening at the congreso, the topic of “Should the Kids Subir” came up. Guna government is a constant, iterative conversation. In the evening, the community meets in the special hall built for that purpose, the leaders sing and discuss the news of the day, and here decisions are made. It was decided that kids on boats could end badly – an injured kid or an injured boat. They sent word via our go-to-guy Justino, who intimated they do not want debts with sailboat people. Hecho.

It was sort of a relief that the rules were crafted to meet the situation, and that Guna government is instantaneous in its implementation. We were becoming a popular destination and were getting worried about carrying capacity. Now, with our pals forbidden to subir, we wave at each other from a polite distance, shout “Chao bacalao!” and are still consumed in peals of laughter.

Now school is back in session, and we have visited the pals in the classroom. We got dressed up school colors and helped them with their English vocabulary list. When we left that day, the girls who run the tienda by the dock asked to take selfies with us in our finery.

This is getting long, and I am nowhere nearer the point. The deeper thought I have about our life here, is that we in a massive retraining on just how to be on someone else’s turf, where the boundaries are and how permeable human relations can be even in the most structured setting.

We were not privy to the larger discussion about kids on the boat. That conversation most likely tied back to previous experiences with extranjeros that left damage. It is also likely that we, just by being who we are, have the potential to cause damage as well. I catch in myself a colonist mentality – what would I do with this piece of land, the port could work like this, the airstrip like that… As a not just a gringa but also a planner, I am double danger. My mental map is always switched on, and it can get in the way of kindness if I am mentally planting flags all the time.

I have become very inhibited about photographing, or holding a camera at all. I don’t photograph crowds or people I don’t know well. Looking back, how many photos have I taken of strangers in NYC or some plaza in Italy? Now, here, it feels like cultural theft.

What I have to remind myself, and what has finally become a source of relief is that “this is not FOR you.” I just happen to be here. The boat makes it more possible to be here with minimal economic disturbance, because we can live quite independently. We barter for most things, and contribute to the town coffers by using the public lancha every so often. Although gender is fluid here, work is super gendered, so Fabio goes off to fix solar panels while I coo over embroidered molas and occasionally add one to my stash. We try our best to add some value.

Which leads me to a simple idea that was actually Fabio’s. He asked the director of the school what she needed, then stopped talking and listened. We were standing at her house on one end of the island and it was a chicha party starting that day. Chicha Fuerte is a  moonshine  that gets made in a special hut for that purpose, and once its ready, everyone gets super lit. Its a special occasion! Big dishes of candy, big dishes of suelto cigarettes, women dressed to the nines, the men bleary eyed and askew.

He said, hey we can do English class but what else do you or the school need? In response, she immediately beelined it through the early stage chicha party to the schoolhouse to show us the flooding they experience any time it rains, and where it comes in the classroom, and described how much worse it gets in the wet season, which is just about to begin.

Dear reader, do you know about me and stormwater? In short, I am a fan! If there was one thing I was expecting to hear, it was not stormwater. Yet there it was, clear as the erosion patterns under the eaves of the building and the high water sediment marks on all the walls.

So I went back today, just me this time, to survey the site with a camera and tape measure. An older lady in traditional dress dodged out of the frame when I warned her a photo was coming. As I studied the ground, a man still in chicha mode asked me carefully in Spanish, “So what are you thinking?” as if I were a doctor making a diagnosis.

“I’m thinking we need to keep the classroom from flooding!” I said. He enthusiastically agreed.

Back by the dock I stopped in the tienda to buy loose eggs at room temperature. You can just say how many you want! The shop attendant showed me the selfies she took with us when we were dressed up and we swapped numbers to share the photos. I carefully put the open package of eggs in the dinghy and rowed back along the shore, waving to pals and pals’ moms, boys jigging on docks, and other folks in tiny boats.

Where am I?

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